Goodbye Christ

James A. Emanuel: On "Goodbye Christ"

An example of a miscarriage of poetic point is Hughes's controversial "Goodbye Christ," a poem which, in the 1930's and 1940's especially, attracted gusts of misinterpretation and calumny. Such repercussions bore upon the refusal of the Los Angeles Civic League in August, 1935, to let Hughes speak in a local YMCA building, and upon the picketing and circularizing by Gerald L. K. Smith's America First Party in April, 1943, at Wayne State University when the Student Council invited the poet to speak there. Hughes defense of the tough-guy poem as not anti-Christ but as "an ironic protest against racketeering in the churches" and as "anti-misuse of religion" implies that the gist of the poem is in these lines about the New Testament:

But it's dead now.

The popes and the preachers've

Made too much money from it.

They've sold you [Christ] to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers--

Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks. . . .

The fact that the poem also excoriates "big black Saint Becton/Of the Consecrated Dime," the Harlem preacher shown as a charlatan in The Big Sea, has not redeemed features disliked by detractors. Redemption was not needed in the eyes of other readers, such as the Reverend Charles C. Hill, Chairman of the Citizens Committee of Detroit, who answered a letter from Gerald L. K. Smith by saying that Hughes "was expressing the feeling of most Negroes toward white Christianity as displayed every day." Emphasizing that a distortion of Christianity was the poet's point of attack, he added: "I can join Langston Hughes with teeming others in saying 'Goodbye Christ'--the Christ as held up by the white supremacists. . . .

From Langston Hughes (Twayne, 1967).

Faith Berry: On "Goodbye Christ"

. . . a poem The Saturday Evening Post reprinted on December 21, without his permission:"Goodbye Christ.

Already that November 15,during a Book and Author Luncheon at the Vista Del Arroyo Hotel in Pasadena, he had been met by a picketing delegation. Sent from the temple of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the picketers distributed copies of the poem while a sound truck played "God Bless America." They then marched into the luncheon, waving a poster of "Goodbye Christ," to denounce Hughes and the presiding host, George Palmer Putnam, in front of over five hundred guests. The stunt was arranged by Aimee's publicity man, who was quickly arrested. Meanwhile, to avoid further embarrassment to the hotel management and luncheon officials, Hughes politely withdrew from the program. Outside the hotel, where a few well-wishers tried to shake his hand as he entered a waiting car, one of Aimee's Four Square Gospel supporters shouted, "Down where I come from, we don't shake hands with niggers." Blaring in the background, the sound truck continued with "God Bless America."

It was not the first time he had been hounded for "Goodbye Christ." Seven years before, a black clergyman attacked him in The Pittsburgh Courier while he was in Russia. A vigorous response had followed from Hughes's fellow poet and Lincoln alumnus, Melvin B. Tolson, who defended Hughes and the poem as a challenge to the contradictions of Christianity. After the poem was reprinted in 1938 in Benjamin Mays's anthology, The Negro's God, various detractors had surfaced here and there, but Hughes had tried to ignore them. Then The Saturday Evening Post got into the act. That 1940, he spent part of his Christmas holiday at Hollow Hills Farm writing a "press statement" to the editors. Signed and dated New Year's Day 1941, copies went to Alfred A. Knopf's lawyers, as well as to his own lawyer, Arthur Spingarn, and to his agent, Maxim Lieber. His statement explained, as truthfully and tersely as it could, his entry into American radicalism during the 1930s, his long trip through the South, his journey to Russia, where he wrote the poem which "contrasted. . . those, who, on the religious side in America ... had said to Christ and the Christian principles, Goodbye.... " Having attackedThe Saturday Evening Post in the poem, he did not retreat in his statement from attacking it as a "magazine whose columns, like the doors of many of our churches, has been until recently entirely closed to Negroes."

From Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. Lawrence Hill & Company, 1983. Copyright © 1983 by Faith Berry.

Christopher C. DeSantis: On "Goodbye Christ"

With Hughes's disgust at the generally bleak state of life in America came a profound mistrust of religion, particularly directed at those people who used Christianity as a cloak behind which to hide their oppressive actions. "Goodbye, Christ" most explicitly conveys Hughes's attitude at the time. Where the call for revolution was softened by imagery in "Tired," here Hughes unleashes words of anger and bitterness which make clear his political posture:

Listen, Christ,

You did alright in your day, I reckon—

But that day's gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too,

Called it Bible--

But it's dead now.

The popes and the preachers’ve

Made too much money from it.

They've sold you to too many.

In the poem Hughes examines, or rather obliterates, the tenets set forth in a supposedly Christian country. If a majority of Americans do indeed call themselves Christians, why then do we witness so much suffering, so much oppression? During the time in which the poem was written Hughes made a journey to the Soviet Union and saw Socialism working, whereas in America, Christianity had failed. Though resources in the Soviet Union were meager, Hughes notes the fact that "white and black, Asiatic and European, Jew and Gentile stood alike as citizens on an equal footing protected from racial inequalities by the law" (Good Morning Revolution). Hughes thus called for a rethinking of dominant American beliefs and an acceptance of the tenets of Marxism:


Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,

Beat it on away from here now.

Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—

A real guy named

Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin worker ME . . . .

From "Rage, Repudiation, and Endurance: Langston Hughes’s Radical Writings." The Langston Hughes Review (1993).